Last week I spent a day at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada for a live fire demo (think lots of bombs) and briefings about the future of air war. By far the most interesting part was dinner with base officers, including several who are working on the Predator program. The Predator is not just a cool UAV (it provided live air shots of the bombing runs in the demonstrations; it's basically a joystick-controlled camera in the sky with near-nametag resolution). It's also the most entrepreneurial part of Air Force operations, and a fascinating test case of how a rule-bound organization can adopt an innovation culture.
These are some of the issue the officers are wrestling with:
--Today it's one pilot, one Predator. Why not one pilot, several Predators?
--Today Predator pilots must be real, fully-trained pilots, even though they're sitting at a desk, often thousands of miles away, with a joystick and a screen. That's expensive and unnecessary--videogame skills are practically all that's required. But the Air Force is a pilot culture, and they're loathe to let the unwashed steer a plane. How to break the barrier?
--There may be several Predators on a given battlefield today, but as production scales there may soon be dozens or hundreds, self-navigating using swarm theory. How to control a swarm? (Further evidence that pilot training is not what's needed)
--Most Predators can now cary Hellfire missiles. At the moment, they are manually launched by the pilot. But the targetting is done by the operations control center, based on the Predator imaging. Why not take the pilot out of the loop? Operations can approve the destruction of a target, as they now do, and the Predator can take it from there autonomously. Or, in a swarm scenerio, Operations could, for instance, designate any human in a specified zone a target and a Predator could identify and take them out itself, with no human intervention.
--That raises an ethical question, of course. What if there was a schoolbus next to the target? A human pilot would reject his or her instructions in such an instance; judgement trumps orders in the fog of war (although you have to deal with the consequences later). A Predator would not. When that happens, what will the Air Force say to the congressional committee investigating the tragedy?